Your natal day is around the corner and you start feeling increasingly apprehensive and down. Is this what they call the ‘‘birthday blues’’?
Birthday depression is a common occurrence and nothing to be ashamed of. Your feelings are valid and, most importantly, manageable.
There are many reasons why you may feel this way, but it’s not always due to depression.
Learning to identify your symptoms and possible causes could help you process your emotions and cope.
For people who experience birthday depression — often referred to as birthday blues — celebration is often hampered by irritability, social withdrawal, and anxiety.
This is actually not a formal diagnosis. Instead, birthday depression or blues refer to signs and symptoms that you may experience around celebrating your birth anniversary.
Although everyone is different, some common signs of the birthday blues include:
- feeling dread before or during your birthday
- avoid thinking about that day or the age
- resenting people who ask about your birthday
- being unenthusiastic about celebrations on your day
- experiencing sadness, anxiety, or anger on or around your birthday
Are birthday blues real?
Yes. And they’re common, too. But not everyone experiences them with the same intensity.
Birthday blues can affect anyone, regardless of age. There are many causes for these emotions, and they can include external factors, too.
For example, uncertainty and isolation related to the COVID-19 pandemic may have brought up a few new emotions on your last birthday.
But feeling low before or on your birthday may also come from other sources.
Why are you feeling sad on your birthday?
In many cultures, birthdays are thought of as happy celebrations of your life. It can be an important date for your family and other people who love you.
So, it’s natural to wonder why this isn’t the case for you.
The causes of birthday depression may be as unique as you are. But they can include:
- Fear of getting older. This could be the case for “milestone” birthdays, like 30 or 50, when the emphasis on aging in some cultures is strongest.
- Fear of dying. Also called thanatophobia, the intense fear of death is more prevalent among people with certain types of mental and physical disorders. This fear may cause you to experience depression symptoms around your birthday as you feel you may have fewer years left to live.
- Pressure to love your birthday. How are you celebrating? Why aren’t you more excited? The pressure to love and adore your own birthday can be overwhelming and cause opposite emotions in you.
- Past trauma. Maybe you had one difficult birthday as a child, or it’s a reminder of a sad event. The anxiety or depression symptoms you experienced at the time of the trauma may resurface.
- Isolation. If you’ve lost touch with close friends or aren’t able to celebrate with loved ones, your birthday can worsen feelings of loneliness.
- High expectations. It’s natural to feel disappointed when you feel friends and family don’t fulfill your birthday hopes. Maybe they don’t seem to care about your birthday as much as you cared about theirs, or you wish for a bigger celebration. This may cause you to feel down and irritable.
- High stress. The prospect of planning and coordinating a birthday celebration can be overwhelming. Whom do you invite? How do you celebrate? Will everyone be pleased?
Having the blues and feeling depression symptoms are different experiences.
Depression is a formal mental health diagnosis. There are a few types of depression, and they all have set diagnostic criteria. For example, major depressive disorder (MDD) is diagnosed if you experience certain symptoms for more than 2 weeks.
“Birthday blues” is not a formal diagnosis and could be temporary.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a reference handbook for mental health professionals, establishes that at least five of the following symptoms of MDD must be present for someone to receive the diagnosis:
- persistently feeling sad, empty, or hopeless
- decreased interest in activities that you typically enjoy
- changes in sleeping routines, like sleeping more or less than your usual
- changes in eating habits or appetite
- experiencing difficulty focusing or concentrating on the task at hand
- feeling irritable or short-tempered
- feeling fatigued or achy
- feeling anxious
- thinking about death, self-harm, or suicide
If you experience 5 or more of these symptoms for more than 2 weeks, you may be living with clinical depression, not the blues.
You may feel this is related to your birthday, or the event amplifies how you feel, but depression typically has additional causes.
On the other hand, the birthday blues happen only around or on your birthday, and symptoms subside shortly after and without treatment.
You may have a harder time around your birthday if you already live with depression or anxiety. In this case, the anniversary wouldn’t be the cause of your symptoms but rather a contributing or aggravating factor.
Also, sometimes your emotions could indicate an adjustment disorder.
Sometimes, you may experience symptoms of depression related to a specific situation or happening, for example, on your birthday. This is referred to as situational depression.
Situational depression is an adjustment disorder marked by significant emotional or behavioral changes that can develop after a stressful or traumatic event.
Symptoms can include:
- feeling sad or irritable
- withdrawing from loved ones
- difficulty sleeping
You could also experience some of the other depression symptoms previously mentioned.
These symptoms may appear and disrupt your daily life within 3 months of an event. They usually resolve relatively quickly when you adapt to the changes.
If you think you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, consider reaching out to a mental health professional.
Only a trained therapist can provide an accurate diagnosis and help you develop a treatment plan. Untreated depression could result in unpleasant side effects and intense symptoms.
If, on the other hand, you think these are the birthday blues, here are a few tips to manage these emotions. They may also be a starting point if your symptoms are related to depression.
Try to reflect on the past year. What was the best thing that happened to you? What’s one fun thing you did or somebody you met? Did you learn something exciting or useful for the rest of your life?
Recognizing even small accomplishments or events can help you feel better about celebrating your day.
Feeling sad or anxious is natural and not uncommon. There’s nothing wrong with feeling this way.
But you could also try to change your focus by identifying reasons why you may feel grateful.
This is up to you and what you consider relevant and could include:
- completing another year of life
- having the ability to learn and live new experiences
- experiencing other people wanting to celebrate you
Sometimes, getting excited about the future is helpful and pushes aside negative emotions. The possibility of a trip, an upcoming training, a likely promotion, or moving to a new place may help you smile.
It’s natural to feel anxious about the uncertainty of what’s to come. If this is how you feel, you may want to focus on the present moment instead.
Still, if exploring the future elicits hope, then it may help you feel better on your birthday.
Verbalize your birthday wishes
As frustrating as it can be when people don’t respond to your expectations, others can’t read minds. Assuming your loved ones will hit the ball out of the park can set you up for disappointment.
Maybe you’re more of the sweatpants-and-fuzzy-socks than the sash-and-crown-wearing type of person on your birthday. Let it be known whether you want to stay in and have a small get-together or hit the clubs with the crew.
Recognize your limits
Even though it might seem like a good idea to pack in as much fun as possible on your day, overplanning can lead to more anxiety and stress.
If you feel you may have a hard time managing too many events or people at a time, you might want to go for a calmer celebration or ask others to step in.
Indulge in compassion
Frustration is a natural response to many internal and external factors. But sometimes, you may feel guilty about it.
It’s a good idea to allow yourself to sit with these emotions. They’re valid, and nobody else needs to understand or accept them.
It may be a good idea to remind yourself you can create that joy for yourself. Here are some ideas:
- going on a long hike
- cooking your favorite meal
- watching that series you’ve been postponing
- buying that thing that’s been sitting in your shopping cart for months
Feeling down and anxious on your birthday is not that uncommon. These birthday blues may have different causes but typically go away on their own after a while.
You might experience dread, irritability, and feel unmotivated for a few days before your natal anniversary.
If you feel this way for more than 2 weeks, or you’re experiencing other symptoms of depression, you may want to reach out to a mental health professional. Depression is a treatable condition, and you can handle this. You may just need some help with it.